Vintage photos offer glimpse of harsh history

Janel Naro, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

Lewis Wickes Hines died in 1940, but his work continues to have an impact even today.

A sociologist hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1906 to illustrate the harsh working conditions children faced in the coal mining industry, Lewis spent 10 years taking pictures of workers in canneries, coal mines, cotton mills, farms and sweatshops.

The goal was for Hines’ photos to capture the attention of both the government and the public, raising concern against child labor in the United States at the time.

Many of those photos can currently be viewed as part of an exhibit called “Let Children be Children: Lewis Wickes Hines’ Crusade Against Child Labor,” which will be on display in Wilkes University’s Sordoni Art Gallery until Sunday, March 11.

“(Hines) was a visual sociologist. He was a reformer,” Robert Wolensky, a University of Wisconsin Stevens Point sociology professor, said. “He was fighting for a very important cause – to get rid of child labor, to outlaw it — which eventually happened —  and to get these kids in school.”

Wolensky, also an adjunct professor of history and sociology at King’s College, gave a presentation entitled “The Anthracite Mining Industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania During the Lewis Hine Years” at the opening of the exhibit on Jan. 17. For Wolensky, what made, and still makes, Hines’ work stand out the most was, and is, “his dedication to the cause of eliminating child labor and, secondly, he took photograph of local boys that nobody ever took.

Wolensky, originally of Swoyersville, has written books on Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history, with an upcoming release “Anthracite Labor Wars,” co-authored by William Hastie, due out in the spring. Wolensky is also involved such area organizations as the Luzerne County Historical Society, the Lackawanna Historical Society, the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, the Anthracite Living History Group and the Anthracite Heritage Foundation.

Like many others who grew up in the area, Wolensky has a connection to the Pennsylvania coal mining industry through family ties.

“Both of my grandfathers were miners, and many uncles, and my own father was a mine worker,” Wolensky said. “The breaker is a big, tall, black building where coal is processed. There are about 300 in the area. My father worked above ground at the breaker, cleaning the coal.”

The conditions faced, especially for children, were extreme.

“There were some young boys who worked underground too, opening and closing doors, they controlled the draft. They worked in the damp and cold for 10 or 12 hours a day picking rocks out of the coal,” Wolensky said. “Children should not be working in breakers. They were terribly abused. It was a brutal existence.”

The Sordoni Art Gallery, located in the Stark Learning Center, is open daily from noon to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 570-408-4325 or click here.